By David Shariatmadari, Thursday 24 March 2011 11.00 GMT
Az Zawiyah. Sana’a. Benghazi. Over the last few months, western commentators have had to get to grips with an array of confusing new words. We can assume that pronunciation units have been working through the night to help nervous anchors avoid sounding like they’re recovering from dental anaesthetic. Their efforts have met with varying levels of success.
Why all the trouble? Well, Arabic presents unique difficulties for the Indo-European tongue. How to get your mouth around Sfax? Do you say Manama like “Banana” or “Panama”? Does the rain in Bahrain fall mainly on the last syllable? There are consonants, vowels and patterns of stress we just don’t have north of the Mediterranean, and the difficulty in mastering them is understandable. The combination “hr”, without a helpful vowel in the middle, doesn’t exist in English. So a dividing line has emerged between those who carry on with plain old Baa-rain, and the ones who’ve learnt that Arabs slide effortlessly from h to r with no gap.
But now the crucial question. Is it pretentious to attempt an authentic-sounding Arabic place name? An element of competitiveness has seeped into discussions of events in the Middle East. Every day we read and hear more about historic developments in places that were unfamiliar to most of us until recently. Those who are really in the know wouldn’t trip over Tahrir, would they? And a lot of people want to sound like they’re in the know. So “correct” pronunciation becomes a totem, a way of proving your expertise. The greater the level of phlegm, so the thinking goes, the more you sound like you have some idea of what you’re talking about.
I suppose it’s marginally better than having people say “Eye-raq” or “A-rab”, a lack of concern for native speakers’ pronunciation that seems to go hand in hand with lack of concern for their welfare. But we should maintain a healthy scepticism: just because someone sounds like they know Arabic, it doesn’t mean they know what’s right for the Arabs. Don’t let’s be blinded by phonemes, or the strategic use of “Inshallah”.
In any case, it’s perfectly natural to adapt the sounds of a foreign language to fit those of our own. That’s how al-Qahirah becomes Cairo, or Libnan, Lebanon. No one would expect an English speaker to attempt the “Ain” in Sana’a, a sound that is the bane of Arabic learners’ lives and that even our alphabet quails at (it’s represented by an apostrophe most of the time, a typographical afterthought that doesn’t do it justice). What’s more irritating is when the spelling of a word rather than the sound becomes the basis for a mistaken pronunciation – that’s where “Eye-raq” and “Eye-ran” come from, “Ab-dool-ah” and other enormities.
But rather than worrying about our lack of ability to say Arabic words properly, we’d do well to remember the Arabic we already all know and use fluently. In the middle ages, mainly because they were world leaders in science and technology, Arabs donated hundreds of words to European languages: alchemy, alkali, alcove, admiral, alcohol, and so on. Spain is sprinkled with Arabic place names. And one of these has given us our very own Tahrir, right here in London. Trafalgar, named after Cabo Trafalgar near Cadiz, derives from an Arabic name: either Tarf al-Gharb (Cape of the West) or Tarf al-Ghar (Cape of the Cave). The etymologists, as in most of these cases, aren’t quite sure.
So the anti-cuts protests in London on Saturday will be linked to the Arab spring, linguistically, at least. Just make sure you get the pronunciation right. “Anti-government protests climaxed this weekend in Tarf al-Ghar Square”. I can already hear CNN mangling the pronunciation.